About two minutes after I had the thought, “Oh, no, what if the morale of Fixed Bayonets! is ‘it isn’t the generals who are the heroes but the men,’” the film reveals the morale to be it isn’t the generals who are the heroes but the men.
The film opens with a title card establishing the setting and the direct involvement of the U.S. Armed Forces. The first scene has two enlisted guys waxing poetic about how generals are super cool and they could never be generals because generals are super cool. Stuart Randall plays the general. He’s terrible. For his entire scene, it’s pins and needles whether the rest of the film is going to have such atrocious acting. And ham-fisted exposition. There’s going to be exposition later, but it thankfully won’t be ham-fisted. In fact, the opening scene is such an outlier to the rest of the film for a while in the second act it seems like Bayonets is going to end up a dark, satirical tragedy.
It has all the pieces. Leave out some of the patriotic music, get rid of the voices lead Richard Basehart hears (even the good ones), and without making any changes to the edit, Bayonets would be very different. The patriotic music and Basehart’s reassuring voices turn it into wartime propaganda. It assures the homefront the fellas are a-okay, even if it’s more a war than a “police action.” Heck, even the screwups get another chance over there. So it does end up being a tragedy, just not in a good way.
Because the second act of Fixed Bayonets! is phenomenal. Director Fuller is always ambitious with the action. The film mostly takes place at this pass Basehart and his platoon are defending; they’re the rear guard, trying to fake out the Chinese they’re actually the advance because everyone else has pulled back. There’s a big set of the pass, which lets Fuller and cinematographer Lucien Ballard do a bunch of great crane shots while things explode. It’s technically solid—particularly the photography—but it’s dramatically inert. Good pyrotechnics, but a string of booms, nothing else.
So when Fuller all of a sudden starts doing these amazing sequences in act two, after one of the squads has taken shelter in a very convenient cave, it’s a bit of a surprise. And then when it just keeps getting better and better, including the exterior sequences with the fighting and not just the pre and post-fighting scenes where the soldiers humanize… Fixed Bayonets gets really good, really fast, and for a significant portion of its runtime. If it weren’t for the finale, you could almost convince yourself the studio took the picture away from Fuller and tacked on the pro-Army intro. Especially since it would mean Fuller’s not responsible for Randall.
It also helps the acting is best in the second act. There’s no Randall, but there’s also a lot less Craig Hill. Hill’s the lieutenant. He’s not just bad, he’s annoying at it. Fuller gives him a bunch to do and Hill can’t do any of it. He’s mostly in the first act, immediately after Randall’s scene, so Bayonets isn’t off to a good start with its actors. Second act, focusing on Gene Evans’s squad in the cave, is when the acting gets better; the actors aren’t just better, they also have a lot better material from Fuller (who also scripted). Second act is when Fuller starts caring about the performances—and he cares a lot, but that first act is rough and not easily forgotten or forgiven. But they do it. Fuller, Evans, Basehart, Ballard, and especially editor Nick DeMaggio (after a routinely edited first act, Fuller goes on to almost entirely rely on it to create suspense and drama, something DeMaggio excels at executing). They get Bayonets to a great place and then the third act hits and it slides down into the muck. It’s not even jingoistic muck, it’s very specifically redemption through Armed Forces service muck. It doesn’t help Basehart’s performance goes to pot either. Evans tempers Basehart but when they need to do things separately, Basehart can’t hack it.
Some of it’s the part, some of it’s Fuller… actually, Basehart might be off the hook. There’s really no better way to play the recruitment ad portion of the film.
Evans is great. You know what, actually, no, Basehart’s not off the hook. He definitely should’ve incorporated some of sergeant Evans’s Obi-Waning.
But Evans is great.
Michael O’Shea’s decent as one of the other sergeants—uncredited Henry Kulky is hilarious as the third and final sergeant; otherwise the supporting cast is mostly indistinct. You can spot James Dean really easily if you keep your eye out.
The middle of Fixed Bayonets! is a beautifully made film, combining various techniques to slow down and inspect the emotions of its characters during moments of crisis and tension. There’s a very clear change in the film’s tone when it starts, very clear change when it stops. It’s not quite foreshadowing but it does involve the same character. It’s really unfortunate the third act is such a disaster. Even without the aspirational, jingoist finish, the action in the third act is mostly bad too. I guess it’d be worse if the first act were better, because then it’d seem like a nosedive instead of a return to original form.
But when Fuller excels, it’s something very special; thanks, obviously, in no small part to Evans, Ballard, and DeMaggio.